NEWARK, N.J. (CN) – Two former appointees of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who were sentenced to prison last month for planning and carrying out the Bridgegate lane closures have appealed their sentences and the jury verdict to the Third Circuit.
Official briefs have not yet been filed, but attorneys for both defendants cried foul several times during the trial about allegedly improper jury instructions that may have all but guaranteed a guilty verdict, also claiming that jurors were allowed to discuss the case outside of official deliberation.
William Baroni Jr. and Bridget Kelly were accused of conspiring in 2013 to shut down two lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge as political revenge on behalf of their boss, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
During separate sentencing hearings in March, Kelly—who had been a senior staffer in Christie’s office—received 18 months in jail, while Baroni – who was appointed by Christie as deputy executive director at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey by Christie – was handed a sentence of two years behind bars.
Kelly and Baroni have maintained their innocence, saying the lane shutdown was due to a legitimate traffic study. Kelly said Christie had personally blessed the shutdown weeks before it happened.
They both showed some contrition during their sentencing. Kelly cried before the judge as she apologized for some of the “insensitive and disrespectful” emails she had sent, but afterwards both defendants swore to fight their sentences.
In a brief statement before reporters outside the courthouse, Kelly had said that “the fight is far from over” and she would not become a scapegoat.
On the advice of counsel, Baroni gave no statement after his sentencing hearing.
At the conclusion of a seven-week trial in late 2016, a jury found the two found guilty of all nine charges against them, which included conspiracy to misuse government property and resources. Kelly and Baroni faced up to 20 years in prison, though prosecutors recommended sentences of 37 to 46 months.
In a presentencing report, prosecutors said Kelly and Baroni should both receive a “meaningful term” behind bars. In particular, prosecutors stressed that the court should consider how their “perjurious trial testimony reflects on their character” during sentencing.
“Baroni and Kelly violated the oath they took before the court by lying over and over again, despite risking additional criminal sanction,” the 55-page brief stated. “They demonstrated no appreciation of the wrongfulness of their conduct.”
The Bridgegate scandal broke open in early 2014 after emails and texts between Kelly, Baroni, and David Wildstein—another Christie appointee to the Port Authority—were made public. The most infamous of those emails was one from Kelly in which she told Wildstein in August 2013 that it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Those communications showed that multiple senior staffers in Christie’s office knew about the four-day shutdown of two lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge.
They also hinted that the shutdown, which led to massive traffic in the small town of Fort Lee, was political payback by Christie against the town’s mayor, Mark Sokolich, who had declined to endorse Christie for governor.
Wildstein, who was the government’s star witness after pleading guilty, faces as much as 15 years behind bars, though the sentencing judge may reduce his sentence in exchange for his cooperation with prosecutors. His sentencing hearing has not yet been scheduled.
Kelly and Baroni both claimed during jury deliberations and after the verdict was handed down that U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton all but guaranteed a guilty verdict when she ruled jurors hearing the case could decide only that the 2013 lane shutdown had been simply a misuse of government resources and not motivated by political payback.
“From the start, punishment of Mayor Sokolich has been the cornerstone of the government’s case,” Kelly’s attorney Michael Critchley wrote in court papers. He noted that the original proposed jury instructions referenced the alleged political payback and that the government’s opening statement referenced punishment at least 18 times.
“Suddenly, punishment morphed into motive, which did not need to be proven at all.”